Avatar: The Way of Water's Best Picture nomination is a joke — and this Oscar snub is criminal

(L to R) Kate Winslet as Ronal and Cliff Curtis as Tonowari in Avatar: The Way of Water
(Image credit: Disney)

The 2023 Oscars nominations have been revealed and the list is mostly unsurprising. The likes of The Fabelmans, The Banshees of Inisherin and Everything Everywhere All at Once have been nominated for multiple awards as expected. However, it’s the inclusion of Avatar: The Way of Water in the Best Picture category that has me shaking my head.

My frustration with James Cameron’s long-awaited sequel earning a nomination in the Oscar’s most prestigious category is twofold. Firstly, I’m unconvinced it actually deserves the honor, but its inclusion also may be tied to the biggest omission of the field: Aftersun. 

Released back in theaters last October, and currently available to purchase/rent on Amazon Prime Video, Aftersun is a remarkable movie. A cinematic triumph that had me oscillating between grinning like a kid in my cinema seat and verging on tearing up (and maybe actually shedding a couple at the end). It’s a movie that I’ve not stopped thinking about since I saw it, and it’s exactly the type of film that the Academy should be championing. 

Aftersun was the best film of 2022 

If you’ve not had the pleasure of seeing Aftersun, its premise is pretty straightforward. Sophie is reflecting back on a vacation she took with her father, Calum, when she was 11 years old. Much of the movie is presented as a home video filmed on a chunky early-2000s camcorder, but there are also surreal dream-like sequences that hint at how the dynamic between the pair has changed since this fondly-remembered holiday.

That’s the sort of achievement the Oscars should be nominating: a tender and still emotionally devastating film from a new talent who has come out of nowhere and delivered a masterpiece on their first try.

The film was written and directed by newcomer Charlotte Wells, and I’d argue it’s one of the most impressive directorial debuts of the last decade. To me, that’s the sort of achievement the Oscars should be nominating: a tender and still emotionally devastating film from a new talent who has come out of nowhere and delivered a masterpiece on their first try. She didn't even get a Best Director nod. Aftersun captures the comforting sentimentally of reflecting back on the past while also tackling the blinding nature of overt nostalgia in impeccable fashion. 

At least Paul Mescal has been nominated in the Best Actor category for his performance as Calum. And that’s a nomination that he has thoroughly earned. Mescal carries the emotional weight of the movie, and in this single performance proves himself to be surely an Oscar winner in waiting. Unfortunately, looking at the predictions doing the round from the trades it seems unlikely that this will be his year, but I have no doubt it’s just a matter of time till he's scooping up a golden statue. 

Paul Mescal as Calum Paterson and Frankie Corio as Sophie Paterson in Aftersun

(Image credit: A24)

For my money, Frankie Corio as young Sophie also could have snuck into the Supporting Actress category. And I’d even have loved to see a Film Editing or Cinematography nod. However, it’s the snubs in the Best Picture and Best Director categories that reflect poorly upon the Academy.

And you don’t just have to take my word for it either. Over on the Rotten Tomatoes reviews aggregator, Aftersun sports a deserved 96% score from more than 200 reviews, with its audience rating a similarly high 81%. It’s also received three nominations at the Critics Choice Awards as well as multiple nods at the upcoming BAFTAs and Independent Spirit Awards.    

Does Avatar: The Way of Water really deserve a Best Picture nomination?  

Jake (Sam Worthington) helps his child pull a bow in Avatar: The Way of Water

(Image credit: Disney)

Just to be totally clear, I do not dislike Avatar: The Way of Water. As cinematic spectacles go it’s pretty much unmatched. And like all film fans, I’m continually impressed at James Cameron’s ability to dominate the box office even when many people doubt him. There’s no denying he has a bead on exactly what the general public wants to see when they visit a movie theater. 

Avatar’s Best Picture nomination feels more like an olive branch from the Academy to the general public than an inclusion granted on merit.

However, outside of its remarkable visual effects, is there really much about Avatar 2 that is Best Picture material? I’d wager not. The screenplay is basic; several key performances fall flat; and the pacing buckles under the weight of its three-hours-plus runtime. 

It’s rather telling that Avatar: The Way of Water has only three other Oscar nominations beyond Best Picture, and they all come in technical categories. It’s been locked out of the directing, acting and screenplay awards. 

Trinity Jo-Li Bliss as Tuktirey Sully, swimming, in Avatar: The Way of Water

(Image credit: Disney)

Not to sound too cynical, but Avatar’s inclusion in the Best Picture field feels more like an olive branch from the Academy to the general public than an inclusion granted on merit. It’s no secret that interest in the Oscars is waning as viewership numbers fall practically every year. It’s often argued the best way to reverse this trend is to nominate more popular movies, and that’s exactly what Avatar: The Way of Water is — the most popular movie on the planet right now. 

Millions more people have watched Avatar: The Way of Water compared to something like Aftersun (or even Tár or Triangle of Sadness which have squeezed into the BP category) so its nomination will naturally draw more discussion and interest. I can’t help but wonder if Avatar’s inclusion and Aftersun’s snub are really the results of a popularity contest rather than a comment on which movie genuinely deserves to be recognized.  

Either way, I know in a few months' time, I’ll still be championing (and rewatching) Aftersun. Avatar: The Way of Water? It's already fading from my memory fast.

Rory Mellon
Entertainment Editor (UK)

Rory is an Entertainment Editor at Tom’s Guide based in the UK. He covers a wide range of topics but with a particular focus on gaming and streaming. When he’s not reviewing the latest games, searching for hidden gems on Netflix, or writing hot takes on new gaming hardware, TV shows and movies, he can be found attending music festivals and getting far too emotionally invested in his favorite football team.